"If you already know what recursion is, just remember the answer. Otherwise, find someone who is standing closer to Douglas Hofstadter than you are; then ask him or her what recursion is."
HAD I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet,
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams
As Sir Ken noted in a related TED talk, everday our children spread their dreams beneath our feet. We should tread softly.
I read an interesting, if a bit quirky, little book a short time back called "The Watchman's Rattle," whose premise is that over the history of our species, societies tend to grow in scale and sophistication… to the point of inevitable collapse, as a result of our mind's inability to cope with the resulting non-linear expansion of complexity. At the time I filed it under "imaginative pseudo-science."
The events of the past few years give pause however: Financial meltdown, precipitated by a greed-begat swan of black color and petards self-hoisted by corporate dandys of all pin-stripes. Political polarization to the point of absurdity ("I am not a witch") and dysfunction (state legislators scurrying away to avoid a quorum). Religious tectonics along the north 10th parallel fueling non-stop spasms of violence in one part of the globe, and the inevitable geologic tectonics of another creating apocolyptic convergences of failure — all amplified in emotive power while drained of reason by our media priests.
Where are the reasoned men, leading, teaching and serving as examples of the "practical wisdom" Aristotle pointed us toward?
Perhaps the complexities of our times simply overwhelm? If so, I believe it's because the noise, accelerating novelty and confusion sets up a fog, within which lesser men and ideas can maneuver and emerge into positions of power and influence.
We must learn to see through that fog.
Not with goggles that mask the realities and truths of our times, collapsing them down to kindergarten nuggets on blackboards using smarmy bombast posing as "truth."
Not with smarter-than-thou rhetoric that ignores basic values and fails to deal with the world as it is.
Rather, with a penetrating gaze that sees things as they are, and with the wisdom to choose leaders who apply calm and steadfast courage in mounting a reasoned response.
I don't hear a rattle. I hear a clarion call…
"Silence is the element in which great things fashion themselves together; that at length they may emerge, full-formed and majestic, into the daylight of Life, which they are thenceforth to rule. Not William the Silent only, but all the considerable men I have known, and the most undiplomatic and unstrategic of these, forbore to babble of what they were creating and projecting. Nay, in thy own mean perplexities, do thou thyself but hold thy tongue for one day: on the morrow, how much clearer are thy purposes and duties; what wreck and rubbish have those mute workmen within thee swept away, when intrusive noises were shut out! Speech is too often not, as the Frenchman defined it, the art of concealing Thought; but of quite stifling and suspending Thought, so that there is none to conceal. Speech too is great, but not the greatest. As the Swiss Inscription says: Sprecfien ist silbern, Schweigen ist golden (Speech is silvern, Silence is golden); or as I might rather express it: Speech is of Time, Silence is of Eternity."
Thomas Carlyle, 1831
Earlier today, Ellie and I were visited by John, the owner of the contracting company that gave shape to our dreams of how this house in Carmel Valley could become our home a decade ago. Our purpose was to arrange some fix-ups prior to moving on. John became family when he and his crew were a fixture for the fourteen long months of renovation. The meeting had a decidedly "goodbye" feeling to it.
Endings, even when paired with exciting beginnings, as this one is, are always difficult.
Sitting now in our living room, facing eastward, the direction that life has declared as "forward" for it's next chapter. Bright washes of sun, slanting under clouds, warm the right side of my face. I gaze out on a view I've enjoyed, in all of its changeable aspects, for these past ten years.
Below, a driver making his way from the adjacent valley to this one, pulls to the side of the road, gets out and takes in the scene framed from a prospect somewhat less advantaged than this and, after a time, moves on.
I think of my great fortune in being able to partake of this view for so many years. I'm saddened by the reality that it will no longer be mine, but then realize that we never really "own" a pleasing glimpse of nature — we borrow it, reflect on it, and carry it as part of us for all the days that lie ahead, even as we dream of all the scenes we've yet to take in.
The way to start writing is to start writing. Not so much to take a first step toward a destination, as to begin a process.
Writing (as in art or any other creative pursuit) derives most of its value to the author in the doing, not in the final product.
In the thoughts and feelings that must be conjured, evoked and arranged.
In the discovery of fresh ideas whose seeds were always there inside you, latent and available, but that are only brought to flower with the application of effort to share some related thoughts with an audience.
In the sweat and toil of it, overcoming inertia, uncertainty, laziness, fear.
In striving to construct an architecture of ideas expressed in language that is honest, clear, compelling, complete and reaches for a measure of grace.
In learning how to advance your craft.
In learning something about yourself by exposing yourself to an audience.
In learning something about your audience by challenging yourself to know them well enough to ensure that what they read into your words is as intended.
In the satisfaction of doing something hard.
In answering the call, shared by each of us, to express and connect.
In the letting go that must come when it's time to put down the pen and allow your little creation to escape and succeed or fail on its own.
So why, exactly, have I chosen to take to the task of recording words here, now on some regular basis? Related: what guides my choice of subject?
A few words on these questions follow.
While having had some experience in a like mode some years earlier, I only started this column in August of this year. It was a time of transition, and I guess that instinctively I felt that thinking some things through out loud, in public, would help me toward choosing my own path forward. I wrote about this in “Looking Back to Look Forward,” one of my earlier posts. I’ve found that it’s served me well in this respect.
I also, it turns out, like to write — I forgot just how much until taking up this project. Don’t get me wrong, this is work, sometimes painful. Writing, like any other skill, improves with practice. That of course directly implies that you have to subject yourself (and, alas your readers) with earlier inferior works, on the way toward those improved ones that your later self will hopefully one day produce.
In addition, I believe, humbly but with no false modesty, that I have some insights (mostly about the world of business) to share. I’ve lived and experienced quite a bit. I've been part of something great, and made plenty of mistakes. I have been very pleased to hear back in comments, a few public and quite a few more private, that at least some of your are finding at least some of my notes useful. I will strive to continue to earn your attention with offered value.
Finally, as one dear friend surmised in a private comment, I’ve found writing about some of the more difficult moments in my career to be genuinely cathartic. The process seems to bring that overused pop psychology word: closure.
Now, what about my choice of subject?
I didn’t really have a plan when I started this. A serial reading of posts from August should make this plain.
I’ve written about business, travel, politics, people, science and sports. (I’ve likely forgotten a topic or two.)
I’ve tried to be as honest and true to my feelings as my capacities allow. Where I’ve found myself editing out potentially relevant details, it’s been where I feared that they might bring unease or disadvantage to others.
I’ve not shied away from opinion, but of the gentle variety and have avoided turning this into a platform for polemics. (Way too much of that in the world today, and it’s not my nature anyway.)
I’ve written quite a bit about my past, but always with the intent that it illuminate the future, starting with the present moment. (I came across the Emerson quote in the banner above just this morning. I liked it enough, with exactly this thought in mind, to put it in place of the earlier one from Twain1.)
Now, three months into this project, it seemed appropriate to step back and ask myself if a different, more focused plan for guiding choice of content in the future is in order.
I’ve decided not, at least for the next lap or two. If this column is not an effective reflection of me, all of me, then why put it out in the first place? I’m a guy with pretty wide, varied and eclectic tastes, interests and (happily) life experiences, past and (hopefully) future. This column will continue to reflect that, for better or worse. I hope that you continue to enjoy it. Thank you for your kind readership,
1. That earlier quote read, "A man's private thought can never be a lie; what he thinks, is to him the truth, always."
Want to invent the next iPod? Then don't try too hard. We may be able to train our minds to be better at generating ideas, according to recent thinking on how we think, and often the best way to foster a brilliant idea is not to push it.
Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman used to visit a topless bar, sip a soda and scribble quantum mechanics on a napkin. Einstein's theory of special relativity came after he imagined himself a child riding on a beam of light.
And Greg Swartz, director of innovation at the golf company Ping, says he has come up with 36 ideas for better tees and loftier drives by looking at the stars. After immersing himself in his subject matter, he'll go to his backyard at night and let his mind settle into what he calls a "hyper state" when it is firing on all cylinders. He says it's as if he can almost feel the rush of gamma rays that are said to emanate from the right hemisphere when an idea is born.
Brain scans have revealed that when you think you're not thinking, your unconscious mind may be doing wind sprints searching for a perfect solution. As a result, answers sometimes seem to appear out of nowhere. In reality, that "nowhere" is beneath your consciousness. In studies, these out-of-the-blue insights are more frequently associated with novel, creative solutions than those derived from concentrating hard, according to cognitive neuroscientist Mark Jung-Beeman, of Northwestern University.
I agree with this insight entirely. The mind is complex, and its workings are not intuitively revealed through simple introspection. According to at least one credible theory, our conscious thoughts are post-facto "explanations" that our left, verbal, brain invents so as to provide a rational narrative explaining what our left, creative / emotion-driven brain, has already decided to do or worked out as a solution to a problem within an entirely different cognitive framework.
I'm reading Edward Tufte's "Beautiful Evidence" at the moment. It's rich with content and possible application that initiates multiple threads of thought. I find myself pausing, literally putting the book down every page or two, just to allow those thoughts time and space to percolate. Only a small fraction of them have bubbled up to the surface of conscious awareness. Many others are down there, brewing, likely to pop up when I least expect them.
Want to bring your best, yet-to-surface thoughts up to where they can do some good? Here are some ideas I've found to work:
- Change of venue: Get up, get out, put yourself in a different setting. Listening to the Dead's Truckin' right now, I'm reminded of the time in my senior year at SUNY Stony Brook when, after a whole day and evening struggling to debug the compiler I had designed, I said, "That's it" (or something to that effect), got up, walked across campus to James Pub, and ordered a pitcher. Truckin' Sample
Sometime later, somewhere in the middle of the third serial playing of Rosalita (Come Out Tonight), loud, the solution to my problem popped up, out of nowhere. I was thinking about the young lady across the room, not software.
- Draw it out: I often use mind mapping software to sketch out my ideas. By doing so, I'm sure that my left brain gets engaged in ways it wouldn't if I only used words (although outlining also works well for me in the case of problems where the broad idea is already at hand). I like MindManager.
- Collaborate: Sometimes your best thinking is done alone, but often the creative interplay that happens when you brainstorm with others brings out ideas that otherwise would not emerge.